As usual, an impending election brought a plethora of government-funded advertising aimed at making the incumbent government more appealing to the electorate. Among the more egregious was Australia's Making Positive Energy campaign, launched last September by Angus Taylor, Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction: a slick collage of breathless messages and glossy images implying that the government is presiding over a coherent program of emissions reduction. The clear intent was to neutralise the government's weak response to climate change as an election issue.
More recently, a Treasury-sponsored advertisement, Australia's Economic Plan, extolled Australia's economic performance during the pandemic and attributed a major role to the government's economic plan, a message obviously dovetailing with the Coalition's election strategy of emphasising its economic management credentials.
Just as scandalous as this flagrant abuse of taxpayers' money is the fact that it occurs within a regulatory framework specifically designed to prevent it. Under rules and guidelines administered by the Department of Finance, all government advertising is subject to underlying principles which allow governments the right to explain government policies and services, to inform members of the public of their rights and obligations, to encourage informed consideration of issues or to change behaviour. The principles explicitly state that government campaigns must not be conducted for party political purposes.
Advertising campaigns valued at more than $250,000 are assessed by an independent panel, the Independent Communications Committee (ICC), which advises whether campaigns are capable of meeting a number of "overarching principles". These principles include that "campaigns should be objective and not directed at promoting party political interests". At the end of the development process, the secretary of the relevant department signs a "certification statement", published on the department's website, in which he or she considers that the campaign meets each of the relevant principles.
The Auditor-General, in regular reports on Finance's administration of government advertising (most recently January of this year), has criticised the limited scope of the ICC. Because the committee's assessments are made at a comparatively early stage of a campaign and do not cover the finished product, it is not in a position to determine whether the principles have been fully complied with. Finance's response is that the ICC's input is needed before any funds are spent and that to allow additional reviews would turn the ICC into "a de facto approver of campaigns rather a compliance adviser", a comment that reveals much about the restricted role envisaged for the ICC. Finance prefers to rely on the agency head's final sign-off as the guarantee of compliance. This then conveniently provides cover for ministers to claim that campaigns are "within the rules".
Admittedly, the great bulk of government advertising is legitimate and uncontroversial, for example, the dissemination of health information during a pandemic or campaigns designed to change public attitudes on social problems such as domestic violence. More questionable, however, are campaigns covering general aspects of government policy, for example, the economy, infrastructure or energy. Here the advertisements usually have little apparent purpose other than to spruik the merits of the government and its policies. How can they pass the test that they are not directed at promoting party political interests?
In explicating this principle, the Finance guidelines list a number of indications of political bias that are to be avoided: explicit mention of the governing party's name; direct attacks on the views of others such as the opposition; party political slogans or images; reference to websites of particular politicians or political parties. However, sophisticated marketing can easily accept such restrictions and still burnish the governing party's image.
Less readily circumvented is the provision that advertising should not be "designed to influence public support" for a pollical party, candidate, minister or member of parliament. Governments could perhaps claim that "designed to influence" implies a deliberate intention, without which any partisan benefit could be seen as purely accidental. No doubt all accompanying documentation studiously avoids any language explicitly suggesting that the advertising has a partisan motive (though the government is nervous on this front, banning the release of relevant documents on the ground that they are cabinet-in confidence). But few can be fooled. Why would ministers choose to spend large amounts of public funds on glossy and emotive advertising campaigns for "positive energy" or "Australia's economic plan" unless for partisan advantage? How can a department secretary, when signing off on such a campaign, genuinely consider that the dominant purpose is not the promotion of the governing party's political interests. The whole process reeks of bad faith.
The main ground for objecting to such advertising (and the original rationale for the regulations) is that governments are not justified in using taxpayers' funds to talk up the supposed virtues of their policies. Certainly, they can, and should, frame policies to appeal to voters. But the political system already allows them plenty of opportunities to publicise the supposed benefits of such policies, through parliament and the media as well as through their own party-funded outlets. There is simply no need for additional taxpayer-funded advertising. Government advertising is only justifiable when there is no other means of conveying necessary public information or when the policy specifically calls for advertising as part of a campaign to change social attitudes and behaviour.
In this respect, government is different from the private sector where companies routinely spend considerable sums on advertising campaigns designed to improve their brand image and increase their sales. The companies' shareholders tolerate the expense as a necessary part of doing business in a competitive market.
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This corporate approach to advertising (or communications as it is always described) is starting to permeate Commonwealth government departments. According to the Auditor-General, Finance in 2019 commissioned two external reports into the effectiveness of government adverting. Consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that advertising campaigns tended to be short-term, lacking in integration and neglectful of "strategic framing". In response, the government adopted a new communications framework identifying six key strategic themes: security, delivering programs and services, health and well-being, economy, community-building and infrastructure. All advertising campaigns are to be aligned with one of these themes while communication specialists are to be engaged at each stage of development, not just the final implementation. This framework will allow "whole of government visibility" of communications and increased "strategic direction and oversight".
Taken at face value, this new framework suggests that major government departments and portfolios are to plan ongoing programs of continuous advertising designed to communicate the government's overall strategy to the public. While there can be no quarrel with involving media experts at all points of the advertising process, alarm bells should ring at any hint that government departments and ministers are using public funds to engineer public support for a government's "strategic direction". Such an objective must surely come up against the basic principle that government advertising campaigns should not be directed at promoting party political interests.
How much impact the new framework will have remains unclear. It may amount to little more than managerial window-dressing, designed, at considerable cost, to give an appearance of coherence to essentially ad hoc practice. At the very least, however, it remains a straw in a most unwelcome wind, the growing assumption that governments may legitimately use taxpayers funds to seek voter support for their policies.
The current regulatory framework for government advertising needs a major overhaul. Many of the guidelines and rules are sensible and helpful when applied to the routine mass of uncontroversial advertisements. But the structure has proved incapable of constraining the increasing abuse of advertising for partisan purposes. Much stricter criteria are needed of what issues may legitimately form the subject of advertising. These criteria need to be clear and transparent, leaving little room for the discretion of ministers or bureaucrats who cannot be trusted.
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